Booze clues: No liquor license? No problem. One of the best parts about central Jersey is that there’s a limited amount of liquor licenses given to restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t drink. Being able to bring our own wine (no corking fees) to Daniel's, wiped out the chance of a pricey, bar bill and let the dollars focus on the food.
First bite delight: There’s nothing I love more than an amuse bouche (free food!), so I couldn’t have been happier when I received a mini-bowl of creamy, tomato bisque with a buttery crouton…not exactly an amuse bouche (= one bite), but I was on board with the showmanship.
Though, I did get a bit confused when seconds later a bowl of olives came out, quickly followed by tomato bruschetta. It seemed a bit disjointed, but I figured the more taste tests the better.
Our waitress, Courtney, was always there when needed, especially when I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any bell pepper in the crab-cake appetizer*, and although she was almost 100% certain, she went back to double check.
*I HATE when there’s no mention of bell pepper on the menu and then I’m confronted with a patty studded in giant chunks of uncooked veg…it happens more than you think.
Let them eat (crab) cake: Cooked, bell pepper was barely in the mix (but note, still there), so I decided to chance it because these were made with lump crabmeat. And though there was plenty of crab and no excess fillers, its stringy quality left me longing for my lumps, my lumps, my lovely-lady-lumps…but there were none to be found. Sautéed spinach and lemon aioli were complimentary touches, but didn’t make it worthy of a re-order.
Hail the snail!: My usual reason for ordering escargot is that it creates a socially acceptable setting for me to drink garlic butter, even if I have to chew on a rubberband-like protein in exchange. But these snails were treated with respect. More tender than Elvis’ plea for love and bathed in a white wine butter sauce, they shone as the centerpiece and were brought out of their shell in the best possible way.
Pesto Change-o: It seemed a bit rich for an appetizer, but roasted figs stuffed with pistachio pesto changed my mind in a mouthful. A balance between fruit and nut was struck with the help of a sticky, fig reduction and an erected statue of proscuitto was proudly hailed by the surrounding figs as a symbiotic and salty counterpart.
Duck, duck, goose (liver): Whoever came up with the expression, “with a cherry on top”, clearly didn’t have any foie gras on hand. This was the finishing touch that couldn’t be outdone, especially when its buttery perfection landed on top of sliced, duck breast.
Well, normally it wouldn’t be outdone. But what if the duck topped with foie gras was then topped with a duck-filled ravioli? Add the deep, berry tang of a sumptuous, currant sauce and this was the stackable sensation that Daniel’s built…a tower where I would have willingly locked myself away forever.
Crustacean Frustration: I wish I could will myself to like scallops. Scallops are like dating a great guy that everyone else loves, but for me there's zero chemistry. That didn’t mean I didn’t covet them from time to time, hoping it could work, and Daniel’s caramelized jewels of the aquatic made me consider giving them another chance…still not a fan, but can’t say I won’t applaud the preparation, especially since they were accompanied by real, lump crabmeat risotto. Now these were lumps – the double D’s of the deep sea – I couldn’t help but let my eyes linger. The “risotto” (not a true risotto – didn’t spread on the plate) was more firm than creamy, but fabulous all the same.
Humble Halibut: This halibut hung its hat on home-style simplicity and let the fish speak for itself. The few components that did appear on the plate harmonized as a whole while letting the halibut remain the star. Sautéed porcini mushrooms brought an earthy chunk and delicate base to its broth, while fresh green beans and grape-sized, heirloom tomatoes sang songs straight-from-the-garden, delivering crisp crunch and acid that resonated with the earthiness of the mushroom.
Brownie Points: The crème brulee was good, but even better were the complimentary, brownie bites brought to our table as a final farewell.
The Real Deal: Some people might say it’s a bit pricey (entrees in high $20s – low $30s range), but when you consider the quality of ingredients, creativity and don’t forget the absence of a bar bill, Daniel's is a deal...the real deal.